For the Love of the Game

by Jonathan Gault | 5/12/13 10:00pm

A month ago, I talked about sports goats and how they generally get a bad rap. This week, I'm going to be talking about a different kind of goat: the GOAT. If you're unfamiliar with the acronym, GOAT stands for the Greatest of All Time, and for those who love talking about sports, it represents the Holy Grail of sports arguments.

I like to argue about sports and I've even been known to argue about the GOAT from time to time, but there is no bigger waste of time than debating who the GOAT is. Even in sports where there appears to be a clear-cut candidate, there are usually convincing arguments to be made for other players, like Wayne Gretzky vs. Bobby Orr in hockey. I'm not saying that it can't be fun, but it's a Sisyphean task.

The first problem is that there is no concrete formula for determining the GOAT. Everyone agrees that it must incorporate both team and individual success, and that's about it. How do you balance discrepancies in counting stats that arise from one player playing more games than another? Should 10 elite seasons and six good ones count more than 12 elite seasons and one good one? How can you compare people playing different positions?

And those are the easy questions! It's even harder to compare players from different eras. Consider Babe Ruth, who was so far ahead of his time that he took the single-season home run record from 27 in 1918 to 60 in 1927. When Ruth entered the major leagues in 1914, the career home run record was 138. When he retired in 1935, it stood at 714.

Yet if Ruth played in the major leagues today, he probably wouldn't be worth much to a team. Pitchers are better and hitters are so much stronger that Ruth would be left behind in 2013. How do you factor that in? How can you say, with any degree of certainty, how Bill Russell would have fared in today's game or how LeBron James would have fared in the 1960s? And if you really want to determine the GOAT, how in the world do you compare players from different sports?

You can't. Even if we could come up with a complex mathematical formula that summed all of a player's statistical contributions and spat out a number, we'd still come up short. It's nearly impossible to measure a player's intangibles, the effect they had on their teammates, how many times they played at less than 100 percent to help out the team.

Yet sports fans are fascinated about the GOAT, and, at least for me, this fascination stems from the reason we watch sports in the first place. Sports are fun, exciting and entertaining, but more than any other reason, I watch to find out who is the best. That's why playoff games draw more than regular season ones, and why the championship games draw more than other playoff games.

The basis of sports is two teams or individuals trying to accomplish the same thing: I watch to find out which one is successful. Unlike the arguments surrounding the GOAT, we have very clear criteria for determining the best team in a season. We define the best NFL team as the one who won the Super Bowl. It's not the only way to determine the "best" team, but since it is the one everyone in the NFL agrees on, it's the one we use.

That's why I think racing sports like track and field, cycling and swimming are underrated, for you get a very clear answer as to who was the best on a given day. Unlike in team sports where it is difficult to say which player was the best in a particular game, racing sports make it very easy. In cross country, you simply throw everyone out there at the same time and the first person to cross the finish line is the winner. They're the best it's that simple.

Of course, this doesn't make racing sports immune from the GOAT debate you still have the problems of comparing people from different eras but they appeal to the part of me that wants to know exactly how good someone is compared to his peers.

So as you watch LeBron James, Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant fight for their legacies over the next month in the NBA playoffs, try not to get too caught up in how they compare against one another in the all-time rankings. I love debating legacies as much as anyone, but if you're looking for a definitive answer, all you're going to end up with is a headache.